First Multi-City Chinatown Land-Use Study Shows Asian Americans Displaced from East Coast Chinatowns
Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City Chinatowns Under Threat
Today, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) held a
briefing webinar to launch its new report on the dramatic gentrification of
Chinatowns in Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia in the past three decades.
The report, Chinatown Then and Now, contains some of the first-ever
land-use data collected on the three largest Chinatowns on the East Coast.
“Chinatowns have provided the city’s immigrants with support networks and
affordable housing for over a century,” said Bethany Li, staff attorney at
AALDEF. “Gentrification and ongoing redevelopment projects, however, threaten to
destroy the sustainability of these once-thriving immigrant communities.”
AALDEF, in collaboration with community partners, academic institutions, and
hundreds of volunteers, spent a year recording data, block-by-block and
lot-by-lot, in order to document the existing land uses in the three Chinatowns.
This first of its kind report reveals current commercial, residential, and
industrial patterns in Chinatowns that shed light on the importance of these
neighborhoods to immigrant communities and highlight spaces of particular
vulnerability to gentrification.
The white population in Chinatown has increased faster than the overall
population in the three cities, especially over the last decade, with the number
of white residents doubling in Boston and Philadelphia. Family households have
also decreased dramatically in Chinatowns, from 73% to 47% in Boston, 82% to 73%
in New York, and 61% to 49% in Philadelphia, which is a key indicator of
“This report is a sound warning to all of us that Chinatowns are turning into a
sanitized ethnic playground for the rich to satisfy their exotic appetite for a
dim sum and fortune cookie fix,” said Andrew Leong, J.D., Associate Professor,
College of Public and Community Service, University of Massachusetts/Boston. “We
must fight for the preservation of a vibrant, living Chinatown that serves the
residential and small business needs of working class immigrants.”
In all three Chinatowns, government policies have accelerated gentrification in
unique ways. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg’s 12-year term marked an era of
high redevelopment, including massive rezoning changes and the designation of
Chinatown as a Business Improvement District (BID). The land use study shows the
“high-end” retail stores dotting Chinatown boundaries are now heading towards
more traditional parts of the area. Moreover, relaxed rent regulation laws have
enabled land-owners to illegally evict low-income tenants in favor of those who
can afford the higher rent.
In Philadelphia, luxury development continues despite the need for affordable
housing and green space. Philadelphia’s Chinatown has the least amount of green
space of any of the three areas surveyed.
In Boston, institutional development has shaped Chinatown more significantly
than in other cities, as the land use data shows that many of the parcels are
devoted to large institutional uses (Tuft University Medical Center, Emerson
College, and Suffolk University) that have not added resources for Asian
immigrants living and working in the neighborhood. Boston’s Chinatown is now
also vulnerable to planned luxury development.
“The gentrification that threatens to transform these areas is not just the
natural result of market forces or the general evolution of these cities,” said
Li. “They are a very direct result of local policies of neglect, demolition, and
redevelopment that local governments have perpetuated for decades. The uproar
over the construction of a Walmart in Los Angeles Chinatown should serve as a
warning to everyone who is concerned with the survival of Chinatowns on the East
This data was collected with the assistance of AALDEF’s community partners
including Chinese Progressive Association and Boston Chinatown Neighborhood
Center in Boston, the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side in
New York, and Asian Americans United in Philadelphia. The University of
Pennsylvania’s City and Urban Studies Department provided technical assistance
on mapping and data analysis.
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